Saturday Morning Musing

My absolute least-favorite part of the winter is driving anywhere further than around my town. Normally, driving places and making plans that give me extra time to meander from my starting point to my destination is my favorite thing to do that involves moving. In the winter, though, my favorite activity turns into a morass of idiotic drivers who forget how to drive every year couple with terrible weather conditions that make you curse every moron who thinks they can just drive over ice like it’s pavement. No matter how cautious you are, you always find that one incredibly slick spot of ice and wind up sliding toward the absolute worst part of the road, since it’s the only spot with a ditch while literally every other spot for miles is perfect level ground you could just drive away from. You’ve got a chance to make the right call and avoid it, but sometimes there’s an asshole right behind you who zips past the icy patch, no problem, and is passing you while you slide so you don’t really have a chance to avoid the ditch since you’ve got no space on the road anymore. As you sit in the ditch, watching for a tow, you try to appreciate the fact that at least he didn’t slide into the back of your car since he was way to close to you to stop in time.

Don’t even get me started on trying to drive somewhere for the holidays. Unless you’re actually driving on Christmas day, and only specifically between cities during non-peak driving hours, you’re not getting anywhere quickly. Forget trying to even do any local driving as the holidays approach because all the routes take you past shopping centers (because that’s just how traffic management works: it allows you to go near every important, high-traffic areas in what should be a rapid pace outside of rush-hour) since they’re going to be backed up despite the fact that online shopping is way better than trying to find what you want in a mall. While there are things you can’t always do online, such as supporting your local businesses, those are never the places that get crowded. It is always the shopping centers and malls because apparently everyone, their mother, their grandmother, and every single one of their cousins all have to go to the mall every day to see if the mall kiosks have finally turned into something interesting instead of another cell phone or knickknack/plastic jewelry stand.

Even if you do manage to avoid all the traffic and the peak-driving hours, there’s a good chance your carefully made plans will be completely ruined by the weather since it frequently decides to, out of nowhere, dump a metric ton of snow on your area when you took your eyes off the forecast for one day. Then you’re forced to try to escape before it falls or to wait until it’s over and be forced to drive at the same time as everyone else who decided it was a good idea to wait. No matter which choice you make, it winds up being the wrong one. It’s as true as the fact that buttered toast always falls butter-side down and that cats always land on their feet. An incontrovertible fact of nature. If you leave early, then it sneaks its way in front of you and falls right as you’re hitting the difficult part of your drive. If you leave late, then so does everyone else as your local population decided to be sensible for once and not all try to drive through the snow. Even if you try to outsmart the dichotomy by choosing to stay home instead of drive at all, you choice is still wrong because it suddenly decides that this one storm is the only time it won’t wind up snowing double the predicted amount. It’ll snow a light dusting of stuff that’s quickly swept away by wind or that melts under he suddenly clear sky as the temperatures never quite make it as long as they were predicted to.

One day, when quick, efficient, long-distance public transport is available, most of these problems will be solved. I can guarantee that I’d ride a bullet train if one existed between here and Chicago. I’d hop on that, ship all my gifts to my parent’s house instead of my place, ride down a day early, do my wrapping, and then head home whenever I wanted because there’d be trains every day but Christmas Day. It’d make things so much easier on me and everyone else who was moving between states or who didn’t want to deal with the hassle of driving through bad weather/roads full of morons being morons. Which are always worse than bad weather since they’re also available in “it’s snowing so I’m going to drive so close to you that you won’t be able to see my headlines” and “I’m going to continue to drive at ninety miles per hours despite the fact that I can’t see further than thirty feet ahead of myself at any given time” editions. Truly, they are the worst roadway companions. Especially because they seem to always have those horrible, bright LED or Halogen headlights that are focused up at the cars in front of them instead of down at the road for whatever dumb reason. Pretty much every awful thing other drives can do while traveling the same direction you are will be one of the moronic drivers who forgets how to drive in the winter. It’s so incredibly awful that I forgot how bad it is every year until I experience it again and am reminded of just how much I hate driving long distances during the winter.

There is no world in which the amount of stress you get from driving during winter is worth putting up with if you have literally any other options available to you aside from taking a bus. Which, let me tell you, is another can of worms entirely. A worse can of worms. Thought crowded roads were bad? Try riding a crowded bus down a crowded road while rubbing shoulders with someone who decided deodorant or basic hygiene was something other people did while dealing with people who feel like they have a right to comment on what book you’re reading or how you’re trying to survive the twelves hours of hell it takes to ride two hundred miles. You didn’t think you’d be able to get a direct bus, did you? All of those filled up last Christmas. Of course there’s still a seat available for you somewhere, but it always happens to be on the bus that their breaks down on the highway or that has to stop at two dozen cities or gas stations along the way to your destination, turning a three-hour drive into eleven and a half hours of sitting on seats that were worn out the day they were put in the bus. I used to ride buses from where I went to college back to Chicago for every holiday and, while I like riding the bus and appreciate the need for affordable travel from one place to another that doesn’t involve owning a car, I still hated every single bus ride while I was on it. Maybe if there were trains like any sensible society would have, the buses wouldn’t be so friggin’ awful all the time.

This year, instead of going to visit relatives for the holidays, spend your time and money on buying a new video game or seeing how many single dollar bills you need to burn in order to keep your apartment at a comfortable temperature. You’ll probably enjoy the latter more since at least you’ll be able to sleep in your own bed.

Actually, better yet, buy a house and then make your entire family come visit you for the holidays. Then you can enjoy being around your family but not have to deal with driving during the holidays. Or invent teleportation devices. Really, the only problem is driving. If you can find another good method for spending the holidays with your family, I’d recommend going with that option.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 21

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


Ultimately, we weren’t able to come up with a better solution than to tie our injured people to sleds. We had plenty of great ideas, even without Jonathan’s encyclopedic knowledge to guide us, but we had a severe lack of any kind of materials. Before the Collapse and the ensuing winter, this town had been mostly residential, catering to people passing through on their way to larger towns and the mega farms that used to coat this part of the midwest. There wasn’t a single electric engine to be found in the city and, even if we’d had gasoline, a combustion engine would make us the target of literally everything for miles around, so none of the tractor repair shops could help us.

All of our great ideas were useless, so we stuck to building light-weight wooden sleds with wide runners. They were much bulkier than our typical supply sleds, but we needed to put children and injured adults on them so they had to be. The upside of this was that multiple people could now pull a sled, allowing us to put a little more weight on them than we’d been able to do with the supply sleds. There’d be no mistaking the trail for anything but a large group of people, but we had enough guns and ammo to spray bullets at every problem until they went away.

Material gathering and design took a day, and sled production began in earnest three days after we buried our friends. I’d done some carpentry when I was younger, so I was able to lend our engineer, Jackson, a hand with overseeing the rest of the Wayfinders. We also had a Nomad who used to be a construction carpenter, so we finished the sleds a week before we had to leave.

It felt nice to be able to limp into the small storage room Natalie, Lucas, Camille and I used as our command center with good news. As I hobbled in the door, I smiled at my three friends and waved my free arm triumphantly. “All of the sleds are finished and have passed their preliminary drag tests. We can get four people on a single sled and we should be able to pull all of the Nomad children on one and the injured Wayfinders and supplies on the other without straining ourselves.”

Natalie looked up from her maps and reports. “Eight people? We’re not going to get much in the way of rotation if we need eight people per pulling shift.”

“Sure, but that should mean the shifts can be longer.” I stroked my beard for effect before tossing out the plan I came up with during the drag tests. “Or we can create two groups of two pullers per sled, so we can have five groups per sled rather than just the two. Two hours of pulling followed by three hours of just walking means that they only have to pull four hours out of our ten-hour schedule.”

Natalie absently nodded. “Ten hour days are the minimum, but they should get us there with a week of three-quarters rations to spare, even with the children sticking to full rations.”

“Plus, we won’t need to keep injured adults on the sleds the entire time.” Lucas leaned forward and gingerly tapped the swath of bandages around his leg. “I’ll be good to go about a week out from here, at the latest. Tim and Miles probably won’t be good to walk until after we get to the depot, but everyone else should be by the time I am.”

Camille snorted. “If you’re healed enough to walk before the depot, I will literally kiss my own ass.”

“I’m telling you, this isn’t as bad as it looks!” Lucas slapped his leg waved his crutch at Camille. “I’m just babying it so I can heal faster. Better than Marshall who is up and walking on his leg constantly.” Lucas stabbed his crutch at me and I shrugged. “He won’t even sit down for the end-of-day briefing.”

I shot a guilty look at the chair Camille had set out for me, but shook my head. “I have been sitting all day in the woodshop or the yard. If I have to sit through this, I’m going to gnaw my feet off in frustration. Plus, I haven’t accidentally burst my own stitches twice since getting sewn up and I didn’t get all the muscles in my thigh shredded by a poorly made bullet.”

Lucas opened his mouth to retort, but Camille cut him off. “Tiffany and I have been keeping watch. We haven’t seen any signs of the bandits and Laborers we sent away and I wasn’t able to find a trace of them in the city less than four days old. I’m guessing they moved somewhere else. I couldn’t tell you where, but I know it isn’t the direction we’re going.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Good. Did you still want extra guards? Now that the sleds are built, we won’t need as many people to finish up our last few building projects.”

“Yeah. Even just two people would be great. I’d like to cut down on the length of the shifts Tiff and I are taking and I’ve got a personal project I’d like to work on before we leave.”

“Yeah?” I arched my eyebrows.

“Yeah.” Camille crossed her arms. “It shouldn’t take more than a handful of days, even if I don’t lose any sleep or shifts to it.”

“What is it?” I waggled my eyebrows, trying to get a reaction from Camille. Lucas chuckled as he always did, but Natalie didn’t even look up from her papers.

“You’ll see.”

“Am I going to regret giving you permission?”

“Probably not. I think you’ll enjoy the end result, even if it’s going to be a little dangerous.”

“How dangerous?”

“If I set things up right, and I always do,” Camille leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes, face serious as she ignored my bouncing eyebrows, “it will be perfectly safe to all of our people and one hundred percent lethal to the bandits who come racing back in here as soon as they know we’ve left.

“Ah.” I stopped wiggling my eyebrows and Lucas’ chuckles cut off. “Let me know if you need more than two guards so you can get that done. I’d prioritize it higher, if you can.”

Natalie looked up. “Really?”

“Yes.” I glanced at Natalie. “I don’t want to run the risk that this place goes back to being a base for people preying on people traveling through here.” I turned my attention back to Camille, my face a match for hers. “Whatever it takes.” Camille simply nodded.

“Great!” Lucas hauled himself to his feet and settled his weight on his crutch. “Now that we’ve gotten everything sorted out for today, I’m going to grab some dinner and hit the hay. I’m bushed.”

Natalie nodded and started picking up her papers. I gave her a hand while Camille pushed all of the chairs to the side of the room. While I helped Natalie sort through the messy pile we’d made, Camille helped Lucas out of the room and shut the door behind her. Abandoning the pretense of being busy, I reached out and embraced Natalie. She hugged me back before firmly pushing me in the chair I’d been ignoring.

“Let’s get your leg checked out.”

“I can do it just fine, thank you.” I set my crutch aside and started rolling up my pant leg.

“No, you idiot.” Natalie slapped my hand away. “You’re going to pull all your bandages off if you roll it up. You need to take your pants off.”

“Only if you take off yours.” I winked at Natalie.

Natalie chuckled but shook her head. “Not right now. I’ve got to oversee rationing for dinner and check out our medical stores. I need to know how much longer you’re going to need bandages.”

“Oh, I see how it is.” I pulled my belt off and slid down my pants. “You’re just interested in what’s in my pants, not me.”

“Yep.” Natalie poked at my leg and peeled back a couple of my bandages to inspect the healing wounds behind them. “That’s me. Only interested in one thing. Definitely not concerned with your well-being at all.”

“I bet you say that to all the injured people who let you into their pants.”

“I’ve had a lot of practice. Now put your pants back on. We can check your injuries again later, once I’m finished updating all our stock logs with the supplies we retrieved today.” Natalie winked at me.

I sighed as I carefully pulled my pants back up and cinched my belt tight. “If you want. I’m still pretty wiped so I don’t know if I’ve got enough in me for more than jokes tonight.”

“Marshall!” Natalie gasped in mock surprise as she helped me to my feet, temporarily taking the place of my crutch as we hobbled toward the door. “You really are getting old!”

I laughed and hugged her tightly before stepping out the door and putting my weight back on my crutch. “Maybe I am! Only time will tell, if it hasn’t already.”

Natalie patted my arm and kissed me on the cheek before rushing off to the supply rooms and kitchen with her neat stack of papers. I hobbled after her, a bit more slowly, and waited in the mess hall for whatever dinner tonight’s cooks managed to cobble together.

The next six days passed in a blur. I took up a couple of guard rotations between shifts helping build crates, repair packs, and create tents to replace the ones that had been lost during our capture. Camille disappeared entirely for two days, only to reappear and refuse to answer questions about where she went. Lucas’ wound continued to heal slowly and the two heavily injured Wayfinders finally stabilized to the point of not needing constant observation. By the time we packed up to leave, it was our last night and we were all looking forward to our last properly cooked meal before we ventured out into the cold.

It was a somber affair, as it wound up as a cross between a memorial dinner for the people we lost and a last chance to eat well before the cold and snow forced us to live off of pre-cooked or dried meat and whatever grains we could soak in snowmelt. It was a quiet, sleepy group that set out the following morning, but I could tell everyone was ready to move on. We’d lost a lot, getting here, and everyone just wanted to find someplace safe they could rest until the pain of our losses had started to fade.

Until then, we had four weeks of travel between us and the depot with only five weeks of supplies. Five weeks beyond that lay the safety and shelter of Chicago. If we weren’t delayed, we’d make it with a week and a half before the next storm was supposed to pass. If we were delayed, we were probably going to get caught in a blizzard and wind up dead. It was a sobering thought, but I had faith in Natalie’s plotting. Nothing short of a complete disaster could affect her overall plan and, knowing her, she’d build in enough extra time to account for two such disasters.

I tried to project that confidence as we set out, but it was difficult to do that while strapping a few injured Wayfinders to a sled reminding them that they were responsible for watching our backs. My limp didn’t help, either. I didn’t need a crutch anymore and we’d replaced the few stitches I had with superglue, but it still hurt to move around too much so I was constantly fighting the pain. I’m pretty sure all I projected was a slight amount of frustration mixed with determination to get moving.

Thankfully, everyone seemed to be on the same page so we managed to get under way quickly. We had a long way to go, but it immediately seemed shorter once we got moving. I felt everyone’s spirits lift as we left the town and people saw how easily the sleds moved. In fact, as we completed our first mile outside the city, people started to seem downright happy.

Just as I was about to call out a shift change, though, there was a tremendous explosion behind us, followed shortly by the “whump” of the blastwave flying past us. Thankfully, all it did was startle everyone and knock a couple people over. As the Nomads ran to their children to quiet them, I turned to Camille.

“They didn’t wait very long.” Camille gestured over her shoulder at the giant cloud of smoke rising towards the sky. “They had a lot of dynamite stored up for digging out the underground areas. Now, there’s none left.” Camille shrugged and smiled. “And now there’s no more bandit base.”

I watched the cloud of smoke for a moment longer before turning my attention back to my people. “Alright, first shift change. Let’s get back to moving again. I don’t want stick around to find out what shows up to investigate that explosion.” I saw a few heads nod and, a few moments later, everyone was moving forward again, even faster than before. No one else wanted to find out, either.

Coldheart and Iron: Part 1

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


I never liked guiding young men. The worst were always the laborers, young guys who traveled from city to city, shoring up what infrastructure they could and scrapping everything they couldn’t. They’re always drinking smuggled whiskey, forgetting to fill their canteens with snowmelt, and there’s always a few who make passes at some of my Wayfinders. A little over half my team is women and these young men are used to what we once called “Rockstar treatment” since they’re given pretty much whatever they want while working on an enclave in the hopes of getting a skilled metalworker or net tech to settle down.

Normally, I’d refuse and save everyone the hassle, but we’d dropped off the families we’d picked up in the wreckage of Chicago and the only group ready to go and capable of paying had been two dozen men in their twenties. The city’s net connection had been saved by two of the men in this group, and the rest had managed to fix up the shelters so they’d be properly insulated again. I had a soft spot in my heart for the Madison, Wisconsin enclave, having lived there before the collapse, and agreed to take this group as a whole at their request.

Between cities, the Order of Wayfinders is the law. If the people we’re escorting try to report us for anything, the enclaves simply tell them they’re welcome to request a refund and then never be escorted anywhere ever again. We are judge, jury, and executioner outside of the enclaves. There’s no room for arguing or anything but iron-clad authority in the otherwise lawless tundras. We police ourselves, so most Wayfinders who abuse their power wind up as bandits or dead.

We were ten days out of the city, heading southwest toward the great plains of Iowa the first time I had to assert my authority. Generally speaking, my Wayfinders aren’t shy about turning people down if they don’t want someone’s attention. Unfortunately, the amount of self-assurance it takes to brush off a drunk young man who desires you is a skill that often takes time to learn and one of my trainees was struggling. Once she asked for my help, I gave it. I reminded the man bothering her that he was to respect her wishes and, if he ignored her again, I was going to beat him until I was certain he’d learned his lesson.

He was drunk enough to take me seriously at that point, but a couple of nights later, as the full moon peeked between the heavy, grey clouds, he decided I was full of it. He was, after all, six and a half feet of trim muscle while I was only a middle-aged man, beard already showing the first signs of grey around my mouth, of modest stature and height. Once I’d dropped his unconscious ass back into his insulated sleeping bag, I left their shelter and found Laura in the shelter she shared with four of the other trainees.

“He’s out. If he troubles you again tomorrow, punch him squarely in the ribs. I cracked a couple of them, so he should go down easily enough.”

“Thanks, Marshall.” Laura rolled onto her back in her sleeping bag and laced her hands behind her head. “And, after that, I can just shoot him?”

I nodded. “Stabbing would be better. You’re decent at quick kills, so you should be able to do that easily enough. It’d be a lot quieter and you’d save yourself a bullet.”

“Silence Is Paramount.” Laura saluted me from her sleeping bag. “As you wish it, so shall it be.”

I smiled down at her, my beard hiding everything but the crinkle at the corners of my eyes. “Sleep.”

Laura saluted again and I walked out of her shelter, waving my hand dismissively. A few steps away, I found the night-sentry already buried in the snow. “Hicks, keep an eye on the tents tonight, too. If you see any shadows trying to get into a Wayfinder shelter and it doesn’t belong to a Wayfinder, make it dead.”

A thumb poked itself out of the snow and then quickly disappeared again. Satisfied, I walked around the rest of the perimeter, that everyone was either in their shelters or preparing for the morning. After that was done, I retreated to my shelter. Lucas was already asleep, but Camille and Natalie were still awake, huddled around the campfire.

“How’s Laura?” Camille handed me a bowl of thick soup.

“She’s fine.” I started eating.

“And the other guy?”

“Alive and capable of keeping up the pace, but unlikely to do more than that for a few weeks.”

“Pay up, Nat.” Camille held out her hand and took the twenty from Natalie with a look of triumph on her face.

“Sorry for having faith in the newbies, Millie.”

“Who else was in the pool?” I chewed at a tough bit of meat and wiped steam from my beard as I looked at the pile of cash Natalie was rifling through.

“Well, cap, it’s all the vets but you and while I was the only one to bet on the newbie, the safe bet was you beating the young groper so badly he would need a couple of days of rest before he willingly went anywhere. Technically, that still remains to be seen, but I doubt it. We’ve got two other bets on you killing the guy because he fought back well enough to need it.”

I nodded as I swallowed the gristly piece of meat. “Sounds about right. Lucas didn’t want to wait up to see how it turned out?”

“He’s got second guard shift tonight, Marshall, as do you. Finish eating and let me take care of cleaning up so you can get some sleep.” Natalie stuffed the money away and started picking up the cookware and food. I finished my bowl of soup and snatched another out of the pot before Camille sealed it up for the night. After finishing my food and cleaning myself up as best as I could with the last bits of my tube of toothpaste, I wrapped myself in my sleeping back and lost track of time until I was shaken away by Lucas.

“C’mon, cap. Second watch starts in a few minutes. Captain’s orders. You wouldn’t want to disobey an order from yourself now, would you, Captain?” I was still too asleep to see properly, but I’d seen the goofy grin plastered across his face often enough that I didn’t need to see it to know it was there.

Grumbling, I slipped my insulated gear back on and clambered out of my sleeping bag. Lucas disappeared out of the door in a flurry of cold that set the embers to snapping on their logs while I cleaned up my gear. A few minutes later, I’d traded spots with one of the sentries and concealed myself in the snowdrift. The only thing peeking out of the snow was my camouflaged night-vision goggles and the end of my gun’s barrel. Even with my night vision goggles, there was nothing to see but the empty hills we’d camped near.

When the sun and the movement in the camp started to make hiding pointless, I gave in to my desire to move around and creakily pushed myself to my feet. I wasn’t old yet, but lying around in the snow for four hours sure made me feel like I was. As I took stock of the area around the camp and the camp itself, I noticed one of the laborers standing a few paces away. He was friends with the one I had educated the day before.

When I pushed my goggles up and locked eyes with him, he smiled uneasily and stepped forward. “Captain Marshall. I’d like to apologize on behalf of our group and especially Mitch. He’s an asshole and deserved everything you gave him. We’ll do a better job of keeping an eye on him.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” I shouldered my gun and let my face settle into its natural glare.

The man took half a step back and held up his hands. “You’re absolutely right, sir. Mitch and I already apologized to Wayfinder Laura. I just wanted to apologize for the inconvenience of needing to police my group. It will not happen again, Captain Marshall, sir.”

I smoothed the glare from my face and nodded. “See that it doesn’t. Next one gets killed.” I watched him quickly walk away and turned my attention to the rest of the camp. The tension that had started building after I beat the assaulter seemed to have seeped away. While I was looking around, Lucas walked up. When he saluted, I nodded.

“Captain, there’s signs of tracks behind one of the hills to the southeast.”

“What was someone doing out there?”

“As the sun rose, I saw it glinting off of something and took a look through my scope. Empty food wrappers, sir. Curious, I walked over after having my post covered by one of the trainees. There’s a whole trail, sir.”

“They got that close and we didn’t see them?”

“No, sir. Basic camouflage would have concealed them at that range, given they were moving at night.”

“Right, the snow.” I shifted my gun and nodded to a small crowd of Wayfinders that had gathered when they saw the captain talking to the lead scout. “Take a small crew and see what you can find. We’ll continue course as we’ve set it, so meet us at our midday stop with whatever you’ve found.”

“Yessir.” Lucas saluted again and jogged off to the group of Wayfinders. I watched them gear up and head off before heading to the cookpot for breakfast. It was either nomads or bandits. Neither was good news for us. As the sun shone down through a break in the clouds and I helped myself to a bowl of oatmeal with dried fruit, I wasn’t sure which would be worse.

Snowy Tow

The snow came down, coating trees and drifting into mounds beside the road. Rosie didn’t think every drift had a car in it, like the one she was looking at, but the thought pressed on her as she tried to focus.

It was a simple job. Wait for calls on snowy nights and then drive the truck into the snow to rescue unfortunate drivers. This was probably her last call of the night. Once 3 a.m. rolled around, it was someone else’s turn.

After checking with the driver, she towed the car onto the road. Ten minutes of work and talking and the driver was on their way again. As she sat in her car and filled out the last bit of paperwork, her attention kept drifting to the mounds of snow. She’d lived around here all her life. She knew the fields down route 44 were lousy with heavy bushes and hills, but something kept pulling her eyes to the sea of white.

She set the clipboard aside, bundled up, and waded into the snow. It was up to her shins, but a particular mound kept calling to her. She walked up to it and started digging with her hands.

Twenty minutes later, she was back in her truck, driving. It had been only snow over a large bush. As she rounded a bend, looking for the county route home, she got a call. There was someone else who needed to be pulled out on route 44. Dispatch sent her back out, even though her shift was over, since she was close.

She turned the truck around and started looking for a car in the snow. She spotted it a few minutes later and smiled, despite herself. She’d been right about the drift, just half an hour early.

Twenty-Four Hours

The quiet November nights with the soft tip-tapping sound
Of falling leaves, deep chill breezes, and shoes upon the ground.
The starry skies and moonlit nights of staggering back home
Amidst the thrills and cutting chills of winter’s icy poem.
Warm with drink and laughter, no thought is held reserved
For all the shame and hatred that I so rightly deserve.

The still November nights with the raucous, jarring sound
Of hidden laughter and skittering shoes upon the ground.
The cloudy skies and shadowed nights of hurrying back home
Amidst the fears of coming years in anxiety’s poem.
Cold, alone, and mopey, no thought is kept preserved
From all the shame and hatred that I so rightly deserve.

The nights are always growing old
And the air is always growing cold.
All these stories have been told
And all their words are growing mold.
All I have has been sold
And I have nothing to hold.
The whispers grow bold
And I decide to fold.

Coldheart and Iron – Introduction

Every night, once I’ve settled into my shelter for the night, cleaned up from dinner, and banked the fires that are the only things standing between us and never waking up again, the idle conversation around the fire inevitably turns to the past. I’m taking my first steps into my forties, older than most people traveling through the tundra, and there are often a lot of children in the groups I guide. The children, curious about an older stranger, all want to know the same thing.

“Where were you when it ended?” Tired, wind-chapped faces peek out of heavy coats and the insulated sleeping bags every traveler keeps if they want to survive once the fire burns low. Even the adults gather around, always eager to hear a new story. “What were you doing when you knew it was over?”

They ask not because they want to know what the world was like before the end, there’s still enough civilization left that even the children of the permanent nomads have seen towns and the comforts afforded by intact generators with gasoline to power them, but because they are bored. All of us who knew life before the collapse will wax rhapsodic and go off on tangents, telling stories about all the things we loved and people we knew. All things now lost to us are fair game and most of us would go on until the weight of our words and the low light of the fire brought us to a mumbling halt.

Then, in order to break the silence and regain some of the strength we felt before remembering what we lost, we would share the story of when we knew that everything had gone to shit. It was a different moment for most people, and not just because everyone was doing different things when it happened.

For some of us, myself included, the moment predates what is commonly considered the collapse by the few scholars and scientists we have left. Most of them admit it was a gradual thing but they insist that one event can be pinpointed as the time when we had irrevocably passed the tipping point. According to the data dumps that are passed around the few working computers still attached to the net, few of them actually agree on what it was, though.

We maintain that it happened much earlier and everything after that was merely a consequence. The fate of the world was sealed and all subsequent potential moments merely hurried it along. Unlike both other groups, the scholars with their tipping points and every other person with their single moment of no return, all of us are very nearly in agreement. Within a week of each other, so far as I’ve found.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know how much it matters. I haven’t spent a lot of time examining what it would mean if humanity ever agreed on what exactly triggered the collapse. I prefer to avoid spending too much of my time thinking about it since survival and my work are more important. In other circumstances, I’d have been a writer. Here and now, I just do what I can to keep my groups alive as I guide them from community to community, and part of that includes keeping their spirits up. So I tell them my stories of what I miss, the people I’ve lost, and then of the moment I knew it was over. It was a moment that was heard around the world, as it would have to be to effectively end the world as we knew it, but few saw exactly what it meant at the time.

Most people only realized it in retrospect, but it was significant enough that they still remember when it happened with crystal clarity. I was preparing for the end since the moment I read the first news reports and saw all the things he said. I was prepared for the fallout and ensuing winter, even if I didn’t anticipate exactly how those would be delivered. I was one of the few who listened to the ranting of a person everyone dismissed as a lunatic and I felt no satisfaction when it turned out I was right.

Unlike most people of a like mind, I think we could have still avoided the collapse at that point, if we’d done all the right things. But we’re humans. Doing the right thing isn’t exactly what we’re known for, nor can we ever really get enough people to agree on what the right thing is. I don’t tell the younger people in my group this, though. Post-apocalyptic society is easier for humans to handle if we can blame something outside ourselves for everything. Instead, I just focus on my memories of sitting at my desk, reading the news reports, and solemnly outlining the plans I’d made to my friends as we ate lunch and they ridiculed me.

None of them made it.

I don’t tell the young ones that either. They see enough death in any given week, let alone the past twenty or so years. They don’t need me telling them how almost everyone I knew from back then was gone. Given the overall decrease in population, the average human has lost about 80% of the people they know. As is usual for statistics, they fail to paint a complete picture. People in first-world countries that were used to harsh winters had relatively low death rates while countries not used to them were almost entirely wiped out. I was the exception to the rule, though.

I’d lost all but three people I knew from before the collapse. Three friends from college who had actually listened when I raised the alarm. Everyone else is dead or missing. Most people who are missing end up being dead since the communication networks lasted a while after the collapse. People aren’t really missing if you can call them on your cell phone. It is only when their phones go unanswered and the obits fail to post their passing for two years that they’re declared missing, presumed dead, and you’re told to get on with your life as best as you can. We still occasionally find communities that have been entirely cut off, but most of them are long dead.

That’s how I became a Wayfinder, I tell the adults who were too young to remember when this winter began. I went looking for the people I was missing and became one of the models they used to create the Order of Wayfinders. Now I have brothers and sisters everywhere in the continental US, even if I’ve never met more than a handful of the ones outside my group.

I still keep an eye on the obits whenever I get to a town still connected to the net, but I’m certain they’re all gone by this point. Over ten years of solo or small-group survival is impossible, given the patrols we Wayfinders run. They’d have to be very lucky to have survived this long or found some odd community that isn’t connected to the net but still strong enough to survive bandit attacks.

Now that I’m no longer looking for people, I lead the largest group of Wayfinders and guide entire families and small communities from one place to another. Mine is the only group in the midwest that actually has the firepower to stand up to the bandit tribes that prey on any wayfinder group they track down.

Wayfinding for large groups doesn’t come cheap, but most families are willing to pay my prices in exchange for a chance at surviving travel through the wilder zones of the tundra. The history lessons and storytelling are free, though. They keep my mind sharp and they’re an important part of humanity’s past if we want to ever have a future. So I keep walking, picking up groups and dropping groups off, telling stories in the silence of my shelter, and trying to survive the frozen wastes of what was once the US.